last revised: 3/24/00
Step 1: Tertium Comparationis Step 2: Classification Step 3: Sitz im Leben Step 4: Grouping

Certain additional guidelines need to be followed when the attempt is made to exegete the meaning of the parable.  Below are some of the more pivotal procedures which need to be followed and serve as the basis of the exegetical procedure utilized in this study manual.1


This commonly used Latin term means the point of comparison.  By its very character the parable is a comparison.  Thus the aim is to ascertain where the 'earthy story' of the parable intersects the spiritual truth--the point affirmed by the parable.  Although modified in some ways, the contributions of Jülicher, Dodd and others have very correctly underscored the primacy of this procedure.2  One must resist the inclination to allegorize the parable, although some of the more extended parables certainly contain allegorical elements.3  The following provide some helpful questions to be raised in making the assessment of the tertium comparationis:4

General Questions:

a) What was the general theological framework out of which Jesus taught?
b) What were some of the possible audiences to which Jesus addressed his parables?  Does the parable being investigated fit any of these audiences especially well?
c) What possible or hoped-for response was Jesus seeking by his use of the parable?
d) What was the political/religious/economic environment of Palestine when Jesus spoke the parable?
Specific Questions:
a) What terms are repeated in the parable?  Which are not?
b) Upon what does the parable dwell, i.e., to what or to whom does the parable devote the most space?
c) What is the main contrast found in the parable?
d) What comes at the end of the parable? (This has been called "the rule of end stress.")
e) What is spoken in direct discourse in the parable? (Frequently what is most important in the parable appears in direct discourse.)
f) What characters appear in the parable?  Which are the least important?  Which are the two most important characters?  (Usually a parable zeroes in on two characters to establish its main point.)
g) How would you have told the parable?  If Jesus told it differently, does this reveal anything?
Raising these questions, especially the specific ones, can help sharpen the awareness of the intended application of the parable in its literary setting within the text.  Also helpful is the noting of the internal juxtaposition which characteristically occurs in Jesus' parables.5  For example, the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-37) illustrates this in the responses:
 R1 Priest passes by (v.31)
 R2 Levite passes by (v.32)
 R3 Samaritan stops  (v.33)
This contrastive action/speech is an important place for the determination of the tertium comparationis of the parable.6
A quick glance at the listing of the parables of Jesus readily demonstrates the wide range in the length of the parables.  Thus the traditional classification of parables retains a basic validity and can be useful in the exegetical process.7  The groupings are predicated on the continuum of expanding length.

a) Parabolic Sayings

The shortest of what can be labeled as parable, these simple metaphors set forth a graphic picture or statement of fact elaborating some aspect of human experience.  Frequently termed Bildwörter (word pictures), these sayings range from the simple statement "Physican, heal yourself" (Luke 4:23) to the double form of "the tree and fruit" (Matt. 7:16-20) to the conditional form such as "the blind leading the blind" (Matt. 15:41) to the extended form of "the strong man" (Matt. 12:29).

Yet a distinction of the parabolic saying from a metaphor (leaven of the Pharisees, Matt. 16:6) or similie (clever as serpents, Matt. 10:16) needs to be maintained.  To be sure a connection exists in that the parabolic saying usually is an extended development of either a metaphor (i.e., "the Lost Sheep," Matt. 18:12-14) or a similie (i.e., "the Mustard Seed," Matt. 13:31-32).  The aspect of comparison is common to both types. The expansion of details is the distinctive of the paroblic saying.

This form of parable is found predominately in Matthew and in the Sermon on the Mount in particular, although they do occur elsewhere in the Gospels.  The guidelines for determining the tertium comparationis are applicable here but because of the brevity of detail the principle implicit in the 'earthly' side may be somewhat more difficult to ascertain with certainty.

b) Simple Parables
This form depicts a typical situation in every day Palestinian life.  It is more than a parabolic saying in that a picture is developed into a short story in contrast to the pictorial character of the parabolic saying.  C.H. Dodd's grammar test is helpful: the parabolic saying contains no more than one verb whereas the parable proper will contain more than one verb normally in the past tense.8  In addition certain introductory formulae commonly occur with this form of the parable: 'It is like' (Matt. 11:16; 13:44; 13:47); 'as' (Matt. 15:14; Luke 11:5); 'when' (Mark 13:28; Luke 12:54); the question form (Matt. 14:45; Luke 11:5); the conditional form (Matt. 18:12; 24:43); and the command form (Matt. 5:25).  Frequently used alternative labels of this form include Gleichnis (Similitude) or Parabel and Similitude.

The expanded details of the 'earthly' story facilitate the determination of the tertium comparationis.  Thus more of the above questions for this determination become helpful.  Because of the expansion of detail, the increased temptation to allegorize must be steadfastly resisted.  Only the third category may possibly contain allegorical elements.9  Some of the parables which fall into this second category include the Lost Sheep and Lost Coin (Luke 15:3-10), the Tower Builder (Luke 14:28-30), the Hidden Treasure and the Pearl (Matt. 13:44-46).

 c) Narrative Parables
This form has no formula of comparison as in the simple parable.  Instead, it sets forth a fully developed and independent story which "begins with such phrases as 'there was' or 'a certain' and is narrated in detail."10  Luke shows a propensity toward this form with the majority of the fourteen instances of this form in his Gospel.11

Certain principles of popular narrative creation in the first century world are reflected in this form of the parable.12  These include such things as conciseness of story, a single perspective out of which the story emanates, sparse description of emotions and motivations of story characters, very limited description of details, rich use of direct speech, frequent repetition, the tendency toward end stress where the most significant emphasis is reserved unto last, and frequent use of antithesis of types.  In light of its character as a dramatic story one needs to pay special attention to the shift in scenes which occurs in the narrative parable.13  The semantic and block diagrams need to be analyzed from the standpoint of progress of plot and the use of contrasts of space, time, characters and concepts.  The contributions of the structuralists such as Via, Eichholz and Crossan as listed in the bibliography need to be consulted for helpful insights here.  As Jones correctly summarizes, "a narrative parable is a dramatic story composed of one or more scenes constructed intentionally for intended effect, taken from daily life yet centered in a decisive circumstance."14

In summary, the significance of making this classification of the parable increases as the parable becomes longer and more complex in detail.  In the third category especially certain principles of narrative development become very crucial to proper exegesis of the parable.

This frequently used German phrase refers to the 'setting in life' in its literal meaning.  Its technical employment in theological circles usually presupposes one of two possible historical settings for a passage in the Gospels: the historical setting in the life of Jesus which a given passage is narrating [normally labeled Sitz im Leben Jesu], or, more often, the historical setting in which a given Gospel writer is using a part of the oral tradition about Jesus to address some concern or issue in the life of his intended reading audience [normally labeled Sitz im Leben Kirche].15  This determination is no easy task in that the two settings are at times so interwoven that it is difficult to distinguish between them.16  Yet, assessment of both of these settings is essential to proper understanding of how the parable relates to a third 'Sitz im Leben,' that is, how it applies to our day and time.

Sitz im Leben Jesu.  This determination is to be made by careful examination of the occurrence of a given episode in the overall chronological structure of the life of Jesus.  Is it early or late in Jesus' ministry?  In Judea or in Galilee?  Is it in the section of controversies or in a travel section?  The outlines of Matthew, Mark, and Luke are important to consult here as well.  Additionally, the internal data of the passage(s) must be carefully examined to ascertain the people involved in the narrative: are they friendly or hostile?  Who are they? Disciples?  Jewish religious leaders?  Strangers?  Where does this episode take place geographically?  When in Jesus' ministry?  Very important also is the issue of whether the evangelists uniformily place a given episode in the same historical setting.  Once an assessment of this setting is made, then the foundation for proper exegesis of the passage has been laid.

Sitz im Leben Kirche.  The difficulty of making this determination is greater than the former, but nevertheless important for correct understanding of the parable.17  The source for such a determination is primarily in comparative studies of the various Gospel accounts of a given episode.  This comparative analysis should be done at two levels: the distinctive literary setting in which each Gospel writer places the episode; the differences of narrative details within each Gospel account.  For the former Appendices 1-518 are important tools for making such an evaluation.  For the latter a careful analysis of the block and semantic diagrams is critical.  This primary analysis should be supplemented by consulting commentaries which address this concern.

Of course, one's presuppositions about time and place of the writing of each Gospel is pivotal, as well as one's understanding of the literary relationship among the Synoptic Gospels (Source Criticism).19  Those which serve as the working presuppositions in this study manual begin with Markan priority and independent literary dependence of Matthew and Luke both upon Mark and a second source usually called Q.20  The time of the writings of the Synoptics is in the 60's and 70's of the first century.  The place of the writing, thus the first most likely intended readership in terms of a community of faith, is Rome for Mark; Antioch for Matthew; and Caesarea and especially Rome for Luke.

A wide variety of groupings of primarily the second and third categories of parables (See 2 above.) exists in the modern era of parable interpretation.21  Yet in spite of the variety of labels there exists a general similarity for exegetical significance.  The importance of this activity is to focus attention on the distinctive insight about the Kingdom of God which each parable provides.  Careful observation suggests rather clearly that certain parables basically stress a common theme or aspect of the Kingdom which is distinct from other groupings.  Thus the student of the parable needs to deal with this aspect before completing the exegetical process; it can sharpen one's perspective on meaning as well as provide important clues to how to apply this meaning to today's world.  The groupings to be used in this study manual are as follows:

a) Nature Parables
This category is based upon the character of the parable as having to do with an aspect of the natural world, especially an agricultural background.  The common theme is that of growth and productivity.  The basic principle stressed by these parables is "the remarkable growth of the Kingdom from small beginnings."22  Some examples are the Sower (Mark 4:3-9 //'s), the Mustard Seed (Mark 4:30-32 //'s), the Leaven (Matt. 13:33).  In making this classification one will want to explore the distinctive shade of emphasis on growth and productivity which each of these parables contain.

b) Discovery Parables
Though related to the above category they do make enough of a distinct point to merit a separate category: "the value of God's kingdom is so great that its discovery leads wise people to abandon all for its sake."23  Some examples of this include the Hidden Treasure (Matt. 13:44), the Pearl (Matt. 13:45-46), the Net (Matt. 13:47-50).

c) Contrast Parables
Large in number, these parables typically "compare one or two examples of negative attitudes or actions related to God's kingdom with a positive example--or vice versa."22  These parables have sometimes been subdivided into "comic (happy ending) / tragic (final judgment)" categories.  Examples of the comic type include the Lost Sheep, Lost Coin, Prodigal Son (Luke 15:1-32), the Pharisee and the Publican (Luke 18:9-14).  These illustrate "God's surprising mercy for the lost, outcast, and dispossessed."24 The tragic parables include the Two Builders (Matt. 7:24-27), the Unjust Steward (Luke 16:1-8), Dives and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31).  "Although it is usually possible to identify one overarching point in a contrast parable, this point is often elaborated best under two or three subheadings corresponding to the main characters or groups of characters portrayed.  Thus the parable of the prodigal teaches not only the joy of repentance but also God's welcome for sinners, and the further warns against the heard-heartedness that resents God's mercy for others."25

Another possible subdivision of the contrast parables which will overlap with the above subdivision is the antithetical categories of "expected/unexpected."  The reward of the faithful and the punishment of the unfaithful in several of the parables would have not been surprising among Jesus' listeners, but the negative/positive status of the Pharisee and the Publican represents a reversal of common social convention in first century Palestine, thus an unexpected ending.

The responsibility in this study manual for correct grouping relates only to the basic grouping of contrast parable.  Yet, these additional aspects should be indicated when present in this grouping.

d) A fortiori Parables
This grouping identifies those parables which depend upon the logic of "how much more...?" or "from lesser to greater".  Becoming aware of this aspect is important to proper understanding of these parables.  The way this logic works is, for example, that "God is not reluctant to give like the sleeping man in the parable of the friend at midnight (Lk. 11:5-8); Jesus' appended comments make this clear: 'how much more will the heavenly Father give...?' . . . The a fortiori logic is thus made clear: if even human beings would not act in a certain evil or foolish way (or conversely, if they would act positively), how much more can God be depended on to behave righteously!"26  Thus these clues to this type of parable will need to be found and then one make certain of the pattern of logical argument which unlocks the key to correct exegesis.

These guidelines for exegeting the parables are primarily reflected in the various questions which show up in the EXEGETICAL ISSUES section of each lesson.  When unsure of the precise procedure implicit in the questions in these lessons, the above section should be carefully consulted.  If uncertainty still exists, then the sources footnoted should be analyzed.  In the beginning some uneasiness will normally be present.  But as exegetical skills are developed greater confidence will evolve.

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1Taken from Lorin L. Cranford, Study Manual of the Parables of Jesus: English Text (Fort Worth: Scripta Publishing Inc., 1988), 18-25. All rights reserved.

2See Robert H. Stein, An Introduction to the Parables of Jesus (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1981), 72-75, 51-61.

3For a helpful discussion of the dangers here see Peter Rhea Jones, The Teaching of the Parables (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1982), 30-32.  Clearly the example of this tendency at its worst is seen in the work of the early Church Fathers.  Cf. Stein, Parables, 40-52.

4Stein, Parables, 56.

5For more details see Jones, Parables, 29-32.

6"The point of a parable should be sought internally in a juxtaposition."  [ibid., 30.]

7For more details see Jones, Parables, 32-34; G.A. Buttrick, ed. Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible (New York: Abingdon Press, 1962), s.v. "Parable," by L. Mowry, s.v. "Parable," by C.E. Carlston in supplementary volume; Geoffrey W. Bromiley, ed. International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1986), s.v. "Parable," by C. L. Blomberg; Gerhard Friedrich, ed. Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1968), s.v. "parabolhv," [parabole] by Friedrich Hauck.

8C.H. Dodd, The Parables of the Kingdom rev. ed. (London: Collins, 1961), 18.

9For a helpful assessment of current views toward allegory see Mikeal C. Parsons, "'Alleogorizing Allegory': Narrative Analysis and Parable Interpretation,"  Perspectives in Religious Studies 15 (1988): 147-64.

10Mowry, IBD 3:651.

11The list is as follows: the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:29-37), the Rich Fool (Luke 12:16-21), Dives and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31), the Persistent Widow (Luke 18:1-8), Pharisee and Publican (Luke 18:9-14), the Sower (Mark 13:3-9 //'s), Barren Fig Tree (Luke 13:6-9), Great Supper (Luke 14:15-24), Unjust Steward (Luke 16:1-8), Pounds (Luke 19:11-27; Matt. 25:14-30), Wicked Winedresser (Mark 12:1-9 //'s), the Two Sons (Matt. 21:28-31) and the Two Debtors (Luke 7:41-42).  Source: Mowry, IDB 3:652.  This listing may be debated at some points but serves as a typical paradigm.

12For fuller discussion see Jones, Parables, 33-34.

13Signals of scene change include geographical movements of story characters, time changes reflected in temporal adverbs, phrases and subordinate clauses, arrivals and departures of characters and the changes of the groups of characters who confront one another, the sentences which are more or less repeated in the same terms (i.e., the refrains).  For a helpful discussion of some of the processes incorporated into the procedure of this study manual see Corina Galland, "Suggestions for a Structural Approach to the Narrative," Structuralism and Biblical Hermeneutics, ed. and trans. Alfred M. Johnson, Jr., (Pittsburgh: Pickwick Press, 1979), 183-208.

14Jones, Parables, 34.

15These are discussed in Stein, Parables, chaps. 5-6, in the following manner: Sitz im Leben Jesu = principle II ('what did it mean to those who first heard it in Jesus' ministry'); Sitz im Leben Kirche = principle III ('how did the evangelists understand its meaning for their readership').  See appropriate pages for helpful discussion of procedures.

16See Stein, Parables, 61-64, for important discussion of this point.

17See Stein, Parables, 64-70, for helpful critique of some of the more recent trends in parable interpretation at this point.

18These Appendices include:
         Summary Outline of the Life of Christ
         Chronological Listing of Jesus' Parables
         Outline of the Gospel of Mark
         Outline of the Gospel of Matthew
         Outline of the Gospel of Luke

19One should consult a variety of New Testament introductions, as well as the introductions of the more serious commentaries on the Synoptic Gospels. A helpful URL on the topic is The Synoptic Problem.

20Q is from the German word Quelle meaning source and refers to the material which is common to both Matthew and Luke but not found in Mark (usually labeled Two Source Hypothesis).  The recent revival of the old Griesbach view of the priority of Matthew (usually labeled Two Gospel Hypothesis) reverses the sequence of writing so that Mark is last with Luke in between.  Consequently there was never the existence of such a source as Q.

21For a helpful summation of the various approaches see Blomberg, ISBE 3:658.  The system adopted in this study manual is that of Blomberg.